‘Why not a zebra crossing?’, Breda (28-02-2017 , © M. van Gorp)

Who is dangerous?

Linguistic Landscaping of a zebra crossing

15 minutes to read
Meauraine van Gorp

Norms and values are common ground in our daily lives. However, the extent to which they determine our everyday lives often remains a mystery. When one participates in traffic, for example, one is required to know the norms and put them into practise. At the same time, one also expects others to do the same. This paper investigates, by means of linguistic landscaping, the underlying structures of a fake zebra crossing.

You should not!

Hide and seek

It's likely that you've heard a good few sentences begin with 'you should' or 'you shouldn't', when you were younger. These sentences then presented you with a certain rule. Later on, as an adult, these rules worked as a framework that made sure you knew how to behave in different situations. Even though we all have different cultural backgrounds and come from different families, which perchance have different rules, we still manage (most of the time) to live in the same society without complete chaos. There are traffic situations, for example, where people, despite their different backgrounds, still reach a consensus about certain aspects of safety. How is this possible? Is this because people share similar norms? Such questions are at the basis of this article, in which I explore the norms of a traffic situation.

If all people would start hitting each other because they had ‘privilege’, this would form a risk for society.

Normal or abnormal?

During his lectures for Collège de France in 1975-1976, the French philosopher Michel Foucault provided great insights in the abnormal individual by analyzing psychiatry. He concluded that the new power system of society is based on subjectivity, which results in a distinction between law and opinion. In the previous power system, people who were ill were seen as dangerous individuals, who had to be excluded or punished. The new system tries to control and manage the dangerous individual. In order to control and manage these people, they have to be detected before they actually commit a dangerous action.

Therefore, they are being monitored from the moment that a disruption of the social order occurs, otherwise even more disruption could come to pass. In other words, central to this way of thinking are not actual violations of the law, but people's capacities of violating it (the potential to do so). This potentially dangerous individual must be considered, by society, as someone whose potential behavior has to be subject to control and correction. Therefore, it is no longer about whether there is a presence or absence of criminality; it is merely about what is normal or not (Foucault, 2003).

Furthermore, the indication that there's a risk present has to be recognized in an early stage. The new power system does this by creating categories of potentially dangerous individuals. These categories are based on expert psychiatric opinion, i.e. ‘knowledge’ (Foucault, 2003). How people are placed in different categories can be further explained with ‘orders of indexicality’, says Blommaert (2005). Orders of indexicality are stratified patterns of social meaning, often called ‘norms’ or ‘rules’, to which people abide to when communicating. Such norms arise by 'centring institutions', which are often authoritative actors. The function of centering is attributive: it generates indexicalities which others have to abide, in order to be ‘social’. Central to these attributions is their potential to articulate ‘central values’ of a group or system (the ‘good’ student, the ‘ideal’ father, the ‘real’ man et cetera) (Blommaert, 2005). 

This indicates that in an order, there are, e.g. the ‘good’ student versus the ‘bad’ student. Therefore, orders of indexicality explain how, on the basis of norms, an individual can be identified as a (potentially) dangerous individual. Additionally, orders of indexicality are always part of a polycentric system, which means that there are always multiple orders of indexicality present (Blommaert, 2005). Linking this to Foucault (2003), is the aspect of normalization, which indicates that one makes decisions on the basis of scripts one has in mind (Foucault, 1975). So if someone isn't acting according to the norms, they might be seen as abnormal and thus a potentially dangerous individual.

Finally, this new power system includes a generalization of risks. This means that not only those in control, but everyone in society is responsible for preventing that someone becomes abnormal (Foucault, 1975). In other words, all individuals in society keep an eye on one another and have the responsibility to act the moment they detect a (potentially) dangerous individual. Both Foucault’s (2003) analysis about the abnormal individual, as Blommaert’s (2005) analysis of orders of indexicality are used as theoretical frameworks for analyzing the norms of society in this paper.

A person who behaves anti-socially in traffic is colloquially named a ‘verkeershufter’ (in English: traffic asshole).

Say cheese

The method ‘Linguistic Landscaping’, as proposed by Blommaert (2012), is used for analyzing norms in society. Blommaert (2012) describes that norms in public spaces can present themselves explicitly through signs, symbols, and other visible bits of written language (semiotics). In linguistic landscaping, space itself is the central object and concern. Considering that a space is always somebody’s space, it consists of codes, expectations, norms, and traditions. As a consequence, a picture of a physical space can also reveal the social, cultural and political structures that are inscribed to that landscape (Blommaert, 2012). As previously stated, these structures are based on normativity (Foucault, 2003), and with normativity also come what Blommaert (2005) calls ordered indexicalities. That being the case, a picture of a traffic situation also reveals structures that are ascribed to this landscape. The main picture that is used for this analysis (Figure 1) was found by convenience.

Let’s take a walk


While walking, I came across the sign shown in Figure 1. It is placed on a busy road where people are supposed to drive 50 km/h, allthough, people seem to drive faster than this speed limit allows. Every day, hundreds of people cross this road, either cycling, walking or driving a car. On the other side of the street (seeing this from the viewpoint of Figure 1) is a gym. This gym is frequently used by a school, which means that big groups of children are crossing this intersection every day. Despite the number of pedestrians crossing the streets daily, the cars have priority. According to Blommaert (2012), a situation like this creates a historical micro-space with a particular order. The order, in this case, is that the pedestrians have to give priority to the cars, i.e., the cars have the right to drive without them having to stop for the pedestrians. So this is an interaction between the pedestrian and the car driver. They both have to know the rules of this situation, in order to make this interaction function (and in order to be safe). 

Blommaert (2012), calls this situation a ‘discourse in place’. In other words, a place with its own norms of how to behave and how to be normal. If a pedestrian would demand privilege, for example, or if a car stops abruptly in order to give priority to a pedestrian, this could be disliked by other road users. This behavior could even be seen as dangerous and as a risk for society. To prevent these ‘risky situations’, children in The Netherlands get traffic lessons at a young age. Moreover, in order to get a driving license one needs to pass a theoretical exam, as well as a practical one. In theory, this situation should function properly. Therefore, it is an interesting phenomenon that someone chooses to disturb it.


The sign has white colors (made of a certain waterproof material) and consists of three separate strokes. Each stroke contains one word and the words are about the same size. This is somewhat ironic, because from a distance this would resemble a zebra crossing. Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) explain this with the concept of multimodality, in which both the visual and the textual are combined in one sign. This forces consumers to read the text, but also to look at the sign as a whole in other to visualize meaning. According to the law, this act of putting this sign up is not allowed and referred to as an act of vandalism. Considering that the sign was made at night indicates that the author is aware of the illegality of his act and that does not want to get caught.


The text “Waarom geen zebrapad?” (In English: why nozebra crossing) of the sign is written in Dutch, the official language of The Netherlands. However, this particular text is not following the norms set by the Dutch language, because the sentence is incomplete, e.g. it misses verbs and articles. Even though the text is not grammatically correct, it is (probably) understandable for all Dutch speakers, since it has a correct syntax and contains words that are familiar to Dutch speakers. This implies that the writer is proficient in the Dutch language, considering that he knew how to truncate the sentence and still keep it comprehensible. It could be that the writer shortened the sentences because he lacked space and he wanted to use the original signs indicating a cross over for pedestrians. The sign also contains a question mark, which, in the Dutch writing system, indicates that someone is asking a question. A question mark can be part of a question-answer adjacency pair (van Herk, 2012). 

Since the author wrote this question on a street, it seems that he is not expecting an immediate response. Additionally, it is uncertain with which answer the writer would be satisfied. Would he be fulfilled if someone replied to his question by spray-painting the answer adjacent to it?  Or could it in some way or another be a rhetorical question, implying that it is strange that there isn't a zebra crossing yet and that there should be a zebra crossing? To argue the aim of the question mark, the meaning and purpose of the text have to be clarified first.

Hence, social behavior is desirable and thus normal, anti-social behavior is forbidden and thus abnormal.

Meaning and purpose

To understand the meaning and purpose of the author, it is necessary to analyze who the writer of this text could be. It could be someone who is crossing this street often and has come across dangerous situations, or someone whose child needs to cross this street and therefore, they want to make sure it is safe. It could be someone who lives on the street and is agitated by cars that are driving too fast and is hoping that a zebra crossing would slow them down. Nevertheless, it is clear that it is someone who doesn't understand why there is no zebra crossing at this road junction. Due to the fact that the writer does not ask this question in a ‘normal’ way, but goes as far to commit a crime in order to ask it, it appears that he desires a zebra crossing at this crossing.

Besides who the author is, it is also interesting to look at who he is trying to address. Taking into account that the text is written in Dutch, this will already exclude non-Dutch speakers. The whole sign (not only the text) is visible for everyone who is familiar with a zebra crossing, although it is possible that the text isn't visible from inside a car. With this in mind, it is possible to assume what the purpose of the author is. A first option is that he wants to address (someone from) the municipality who can change this situation. This means that the author himself is not in power to change this situation and is dependent on someone else. This could be one of the reasons for this approach of activism. Perhaps the author already tried other ways in order to change the situation, but never succeeded, so he had to use another approach in order to be heard.  Another possibility is that he just wants to make people aware or warn people for a possible dangerous situation. A final assumption is that the author wants to fool drivers into thinking that there is an actual zebra crossing in order to make them stop or to slow them down. It's likely that this is not the main reason, since only one side of the road is painted.


A real, authentic, official and normal zebra crossing looks like the picture shown in Figure 2 and has official road signs next to it (as shown in Figure 3). Any other deviant looking zebra crossing looks abnormal to people in traffic. This also means that when driving a car, cycling or walking somewhere people tend to only obey the rules of a ‘real’ zebra crossing and not of ‘falsified’ ones. So this indicates a complicated situation, taking into account that there are norms within norms. If a pedestrian takes privilege (without having the right to), for example, and just started crossing the street, what is an approaching motorist supposed to do in this situation? 

The law clearly states that all participants in traffic are forbidden to behave in such a way that a traffic accident attributable to them occurs, in which another person is killed or sustains serious physical injury or physical injury, such that temporary illness occurs or that person is prevented from engaging in normal activity (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, 2014). In other words, the car driver is not allowed to hit the pedestrian on purpose and has to stop on time. In the case that the car driver, irrespective of his privilege, hits the pedestrian, the law has a special arrangement and the car driver is held responsible for any damages the pedestrian might suffer (in most cases, there are some exceptions). The thought behind this rule is that pedestrians (and cyclists) are seen as weaker and more vulnerable road users (ANWB).

Laws or norms?

As mentioned before, there are, next to the general norm of ‘trying not to hit each other’, other rules that are supported by the law. The official rule of a zebra crossing, for example, is that cars need to halt for crossing pedestrians and if they do not do this, they risk getting a ticket (Boetes.nl, n.d.). Another official rule is that pedestrians have to give priority to crossing cars that are driving on a priority lane. Of course, this rule has exceptions and is much more complicated than stated here, but let’s not make things more complicated than needed.

Despite that there are some concrete rules; the law does not very specifically describe how to behave in traffic. Nonetheless, the Dutch law states the following: ‘It is an offense for any road user to act in such manner as to cause a hazard (or a potential hazard) on the public highway or to obstruct other road users in any way.’ (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, 2014) This implies that as long as one obeys the official rules, they are not breaking the law. Although, nowadays, one can get a sanction for dangerous or anti-social behavior (CBR, 2011). This is stated in the law and makes it possible to obligate the ‘anti-social’ users of the road to follow a course called an ‘Educational Sanction: (anti-social) Behavior in road traffic’ [EMG] (in Dutch: Educatieve Maatregel Gedrag en verkeer). The purpose of EMG is to teach people who behaved anti-socially to behave socially (CBR, 2011). A person who behaves anti-socially in traffic is colloquially called a ‘verkeershufter’ (in English: traffic asshole). If one detects an anti-social driver, one can report this anonymously on different websites or call the police. Figure 4 shows an example of someone reporting an anti-social driver by exposing his license plate, describing the act, and by revealing the location of the act.

Considering that there is no clear-cut description of anti-social behavior, each case has to be judged individually. Basically, everyone has their own opinion about what proper driving looks like (e.g. don't we allhave a person in our lives in whose car we'd rather not set foot, but who thinks of themselves that they're a very proficient driver?). These opinions can be based on someone’s experiences or characteristics. Additionally, the same person could have different norms for driving properly, depending on the context. As a result, similar cases can be judged differently, depending on the judge and on the context.


Social or anti-social

The question that arises is; what is anti-social behaviour in traffic? We can at least state that this is the opposite of social behaviour. Hence, social behaviour is desirable and thus normal, anti-social behaviour is forbidden and thus abnormal. This corresponds with Foucault’s (2003) statements about the new power system, which is based on normativity and subjectivity. In traffic, there is a norm that states in which way people should behave in order to reduce risk. Following Foucault (2003), norms exist in order to control and protect the social body. These norms make it possible to detect a (potentially) dangerous individual. If a dangerous individual is detected, he has to be managed and controlled by teaching him how to behave properly. This can, for example, be accomplished by obligating the individual to follow the EMG course. 

Furthermore, Foucault (2003) explains that the new power system inlcudes a generalization of risks. This is apparent due to the fact that there are different ways to report (potentially) dangerous individual,s who have displayed anti-social driving behavior. This indicates that not only the police or the government is responsible for monitoring risks. Altogether, by making the sign shown in Figure 1, the author shows that he detected a dangerous and risky situation and took responsibility for reporting this. He tried to protect the social body and did this by committing a crime himself. The dangerous individual is in this case, the one who decided not to place a zebra crossing on this road junction.


ANWB. (n.d.). Aanrijding met voetganger of fietser. Retrieved June 11, 2017, from https://www.anwb.nl/juridisch-advies/aanrijding-endan/aansprakelijkheid/...

Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2012). Chronicles of complexity: Ethnography, superdiversity, and linguistic landscapes (Vol. 29). Tilburg: Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies.

Boetes.nl. (n.d.). Aan voetganger op/bij zebrapad. Retrieved June 8, 2017.

CBR. (2011). Educatieve Maatregel Gedrag en verkeer (EMG). Retrieved June 8, 2017.

Foucault, M. (2003). Society must be defended. Lectures at the college de France 1975-1976. New York: Picador.

Kress, G., and van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of Visual Design. Londen: Routledge.

Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. (2013). Road Traffic Signs and Regulations in the Netherlands. Retrieved June 8, 2017.

Rijksoverheid. (2008). Minister Eurlings pakt asociaal weggedrag hard aan. Retrieved June 8, 2017.